Reliance, Illinois by Mary VolmerReliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

Reliance, Illinois

byMary Volmer

Paperback | April 11, 2017

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"Reliance, Illinois has it all—mystery, politics, war; love, death, and art. Every page is a pleasure."
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.
Mary Volmer was born in Grass Valley, California, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College and a master’s degree from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where she was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and H...
Title:Reliance, IllinoisFormat:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8.2 × 5.6 × 1 inPublished:April 11, 2017Publisher:Soho PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1616958065

ISBN - 13:9781616958060

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Read from the Book

Chapter 1I was three months from thirteen when Mama and I stepped off the carriage in the Mississippi River town of Reliance. We carried between us one tattered carpetbag and a hatbox of balding crushed velvet filled with lace-making and sewing notions. And we carried a marriage proposal from a Mr. Lyman Dryfus.     Two other passengers, a consumptive old farmer and a woman in a foreign looking dress, heaved their trunks and disappeared into the arms and wagons of loved ones. The coachman hissed low obscenities to his team; then he, too, continued up Grafton Road, leaving Mama and me alone together on the outskirts of a brick-and-mortar town that looked ready to tumble from the limestone bluffs above. A white haze veiled the sun. Farmland yawned westward while the river pressing south seemed to me the source and end of all the changing colors quilting the Illinois shore.    “Read it to me again,” Mama said. Upriver, a cannon boomed from a trolling steamer, all but its twin stacks, hidden by a thin, treelined island. “Madelyn.”    “Said wait by the river road. Don’t see no other river. No other road.”    “Don’t be smart.” Mama coiled a strand of hair around one finger, sucked the split ends to a point; she gave her skirts and petticoats a shake as one would freshen long-shelved linen, and then we both became conscious of the figure hulking in the shade of a nearby oak. He was wide through the eyes, his chin studded with soft blond whiskers and angry red blemishes, and his long arms and legs had a dumb restless look about them. I slipped behind Mama, pulled my bonnet low.    “Miss Rebecca Branch?” he asked.    Beautiful women, like Mama, only pretend to be unconscious of the effect their looks have upon men. On the train to Alton, her practiced scowl warded off uninvited attention, and the smile she gave this man—no, boy, a great big boy, slumping into the light—strained Mama’s neck and shoulders. We had been expecting a man with a steady business and dependable income, so his age and the frayed legs of his trousers were suspect.    The cannon boomed. The boy, recovering himself, nodded toward the steam trail. “A girl’s gone missing.”    “That’s terrible,” she said. The boy shrugged.    “If she drowned, they’re looking too far up current.” He deliberated, craning his neck to see me. “Isn’t there only meant to be one of you?”    But Mama, stepping quickly forward, captured his full attention. “And you are Mr—?”    The boy blushed. “It’s Hanley. Just Hanley. Mr. Dryfus’s devil. Work for him. But I’m joining to fight out west, soon as I’m old enough.”    “Hanley, then,” she said and taking him by the sleeve, left me to mind the bags. “Take us to Mr. Dryfus.”Even with her humble trousseau, Mama maintained the entire journey a desperate, hopeful pride, which earned at once the slackjawed admiration of men and the denigration of women—and made her even more a mystery to me than normal. In the days that must surely precede her wedding, she planned to stitch every scrap of lace she’d made about the collar and cuffs of her Sunday dress, in the hope that Mr. Dryfus would find her attire frugal, as opposed to poor. For in correspondence with Mr. Dryfus, Mama (that is to say I, because Mama never learned to read or write well) led him to believe she stood to inherit a respectable sum and a modest estate from an aged aunt, who, unfortunately for all involved, did not exist. Except for her hands—square, and callused as a man’s—Mama could pass for twenty. But there was no benevolent aunt, no money, no land.    And of course, I did not exist in the mind of Mr. Dryfus.    No other advertisements in the Matrimonial Times featured mother with daughter, though plenty featured mutually attractive sisters, their hands full of daisies or knitting needles, sometimes a Bible. Mama decided. We both agreed. Better to make explanations as they became necessary. At the time, I’d thought little about omitting myself from the page, and nothing of the fact that Lyman Dryfus had included no photograph of himself when Mama had submitted two, a profile and portrait at great expense. His ad read simply:254—A man of advancing age, adequate height, & weight, with a steady business and dependable income, seeks energetic wife, fit and healthy, with a strong physiognomy. No Catholics.    He was a man. He owned a house, a business. I liked the sound of his name, Lyman Dryfus. Neither of us had known the meaning of the word physiognomy. Dot, the widow with whom we had been living—and very much a mother to us both—decided it must mean beauty, a “strong beauty,” especially since there had been no other mention of appearances. Her dying wish was that we stay this side of the Mississippi, as if that muddy gash separating East from West would prove, even for her spirit, insurmountable, farther away than the spirit realm where Dot’s husband, Sam, had waited with far more patience, she said, than he’d ever managed in life.    Dot needn’t have worried. Ads from men living in the ethereal West promised riches with a brand of reckless confidence that made Mama wary. It was his letters, so passionate and generous next to that ad, which convinced me that Mama should, by all means, fall in love with Mr. Lyman Dryfus.    I hope you too, he had written, might one day learn to care for the river, to love the current’s heavy pull, its murky unreflective face, hiding alike her deeps and shallows.    And in another: After the first snow in Reliance, but few leaves stop the eye short of the horizon. Plucked cornfields reveal blackened, old-woman skin, flaking and fallow. Color drifts downriver and after the shallows have frozen, before ice locks the riverbanks, the eagles come. Such a curious contradiction, the ice-locked riverbank, and the fierce free flight of those eagles . . .    He wrote about the sycamores in spring, the wind through the reeds, and I, who was then exceptionally sentimental, found it all terribly romantic—albeit unlike any of Dot’s yellow covered literature. I, nevertheless, felt confident in my reply.    My Dear Mr. Dryfus, I wrote. My soul is sobbing and lamenting at the thought of our great distant and I have been praying our separation willn’t destroy my tinter hart.    I tipped my nose for the scent of mud earth as Mr. Dryfus had described it, but smelled only the cannon’s sulfur leavings. I listened in vain for the soft whisper of his river reeds and could not differentiate sycamore from maple. I had expected the river to f it neatly into his descriptions, but his words had become no more than stacked stones, and the river—its changing colors, its breadth and constant motion—a living thing quite apart.    It made me afraid to meet him.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Reliance, Illinois"Reliance, Illinois has it all—mystery, politics, war; love, death, and art. In finely wrought sentences, Volmer's novel follows such a lively cast of characters, first and foremost her marvelous protagonist Madelyn. Every page is a pleasure."—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"Female protagonists in author Mary Volmer's historical fiction novels are resilient, educated, street smart, intrepid. [Reliance, Illinois] harbors unexpected twists." —San Jose Mercury News "Volmer's unforgettable protagonist lives through social evolution, the fight for women's rights and personal strife, yet she perseveres, and Reliance, Illinois, with its universal themes and evocative period detail, is uplifting." —Shelf Awareness "Complete with love, war, death and mystery, the story’s characters weave their way through social evolution, gossip, crime, women’s rights movements and their own personal struggles." —The Telegraph "Volmer’s second novel paints a compelling portrait of a small Midwestern town and its residents during a period of great change."—Library Journal "[Reliance, Illinois] has smart touches of humor and is well grounded in its place and time. This novel will appeal to readers curious about the lives of women in the post-Civil War Midwest."  —Publishers Weekly "Volmer’s second novel will appeal to readers for its rich cast of characters and well-evoked setting." —Booklist "A genuine pleasure. Reliance, Illinois is lively, witty, and evocative, with characters who pop off the page and a protagonist you'll never forget."—Lou Berney, author of The Long and Far Away Gone"Mary Volmer’s Reliance, Illinois grabbed me from the first page. Staggeringly beautiful prose, a poignant story, the whip smart heroine Maddy who I rooted for all the way. Volmer brings a universal theme of the reliance—all of us who search for it—to be found in ourselves. Do yourself a favor, clear your schedule and drink in Volmer’s radiant Reliance, Illinois."—Cara Black, New York Times bestselling author of Murder on the Quai"Mary Volmer’s lush prose draws the reader into an intricately detailed world." —Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser"In Reliance, Illinois, Mary Volmer creates a world at once old and new. She evokes an entire time and place through the perfect application of richly enlivening historical detail. In her depiction of the varied and often risky recourses her characters adopt in order to live well or with dignity—or at all, Volmer tells a compelling, timeless story about exigency and survival, especially for women. A deftly written page-turner that addresses universal questions with open-heartedness and verve, Reliance, Illinois offers a captivating read about an important juncture in American history."—Naomi J. Williams, author of Landfalls“A lovely and moving novel—it is about language and writing, but more profoundly it is about creation: art, friendship, birth itself. Beautiful.”—Max Byrd, author of The Paris Deadline Praise for Crown of Dust"There are subliminal echoes of L. Frank Baum in Volmer's mythmaking . . . But Volmer keeps whimsy in check with a terse present-tense voice that invests her pioneers piquant inner lives and a poker-faced lyricism."—The New York Times Book Review"Any illusions about the glamour of digging for gold are totally shattered by Mary Volmer's Crown of Dust, a grim and carefully researched book about the California gold rush . . . Volmer, in her remarkable first novel, has recreated the reality of an era that few can even visualize now."—The Washington Times"Volmer's distinctive, beautifully written debut is set in the California gold rush country in the mid-19th century . . . [Her] prose is taut and restrained, moving the story along at a healthy clip as her hardscrabble characters rumble and stumble through their dusty domain. Volmer's found a fat vein of gold in some heavily mined territory."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review"Volmer paints a moving portrait of outcasts and nonconformists who build their own community . . . Evocative historical background and thoughtful social observation make this a promising debut."—Kirkus ReviewsFrom the Hardcover edition.